Ever notice that the smallest children seem to be one with their bodies? Unlike us, they don’t value their thoughts over their senses. They also don’t get caught up in ruminating about what isn’t directly part of the moment. Past or future: irrelevant. Other people’s opinions of their appearance: irrelevant. They are tuned to the sensory world around and within them.
This state of awareness may be similar to the state that was essential for our earliest ancestors, whose attention to the here-and-now ensured survival. Eons ago, hunter-gatherers had to be alert for scents, sights, and sounds of potential food or danger. Chances are this alertness included respect for the body’s way of knowing—unease felt in the belly, anticipation in the throat, restlessness in the limbs—signaling awareness transcending overt indicators. And they had to be able to respond appropriately and meaningfully in an instant. Pausing to consider their options would have let the antelope get away or given the bear time to attack. The people who were most attuned to their body’s perceptions (inner as well as outer) were more likely to live, passing along those abilities to the next generation. We have the same capacities today although typically they’re pushed well below our awareness.
Powerful nerves connect our brains with our digestive system, heart, lungs, and other organs. And this communication is sensory. It isn’t top down, with our brains bossing around our bodies. Instead 90 percent of the information goes the other way, with the gut informing the brain. The network of nerves along our digestive system is so significant that researchers call it the enteric brain.
Our impulses and emotions are influenced (perhaps generated) by the nerves in our gut. Our brains then work to logically explain the emotion, as Candace Pert explains in her groundbreaking book, Molecules Of Emotion.
Our intuition and reasoning is also influenced by our enteric brain. This ability to know without thinking about it is what Malcolm Gladwell termed “adaptive unconscious” in his bestseller Blink. We constantly process data from all around us (as well as within us) below the level of conscious awareness. Accessing and understanding this information is part of what makes us safe and happy. What we call feeling good is a sense of accord with this innate bodily knowing, transmitted to us directly as a visceral sensation.
We drive ourselves and our children away from this awareness when we emphasize head over body, when we value thoughts but dismiss that knowing in our very cells. We worsen the problem when we adopt the standard practice of valuing one hemisphere of the brain over the other.
So what are some ways to tune ourselves to this bodily knowing?
1. Notice how the youngest children perceive reality. They have an innate ability to assign unique meanings and interpret creatively. They haven’t yet learned the boundaries of acceptable/unacceptable forms of knowing. Simply watching, listening to, and living within the reality of a very young child can stretch your perceptions and re-awaken your awareness.
2. Avoid the distraction of multitasking. This fractures your attention into tiny (often useless) pieces.
3. Devote time each day to simple practices which cultivate awareness. Daydream. Contemplate a flame, or the evening sky, or a tree. Meditate. Take a walk that’s focused entirely on sensation—-the feeling of your feet as they touch and push away from the ground with each step, the whoosh of air in and out of your lungs, the temperature of the outdoor air as it contacts your exposed skin. Eat slowly. Look into a loved one’s eyes.
4. Practice using your intuition. With regular use, your gut sense and intuitive hunches will become more reliable. Try using the classic Intuition Workout by Nancy Rosanoff.
5. Check out what Eugene Gendlin calls focusing. We’ve been talking about the feeling of knowing that lies deep in us, related to the way our bodies carry concerns or life situations. According to Gendlin’s book Focusing, these perceptions can be accessed using specific steps of clear bodily attention. This opens up knowingness as it is “felt” and garners direct information that comes from the center of one’s being.
6. Pay attention to your dreams. When you waken, spend a few moments relishing the feelings and images you just experienced in the dreamworld. Let them enter your waking body and waking consciousness. They are specific to you, and have unique purpose that transcends analysis. They are another form of direct knowing.
7. Ask your body questions and “listen” as answers arrive in the form of images, physical sensations, memories, or emotions. You may want to ask a headache why it’s occurring or ask your throat why it feels tight. Learn to recognize metaphors in your body’s answers.
“My belief is in the blood and flesh as being wiser than the intellect. The body-unconscious is where life bubbles up in us. It is how we know that we are alive, alive to the depths of our souls and in touch somewhere with the vivid reaches of the cosmos.” D.H. Lawrence